1812 The Retreat from Moscow, French School, 1860
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Overall: 48cm (19in) x 38cm (15in)
Grisaille watercolour on paper. A heavy cavalryman of Napoleon’s Grande Armée, with cuirass just visible beneath his cloak and his Year IX pistol in hand against depredations of predatory Cossacks, shelters a youthful bugler from the bitter cold of the Russian winter during the Retreat from Moscow in 1812. Such themes echoed the grandiose paintings popular with Napoleon III that glorified the carnage of Napoleon I’s campaigns - the works of Adolphe Yvon, himself a pupil of Delaroche, are a case in point.
‘The cold was so intense that bivouacking was no longer supportable’ wrote Napoleon's Master of Horse and eyewitness of the Retreat, Armand de Caulaincourt, ‘One constantly found men who, overcome by the cold, had been forced to drop out and had fallen to the ground, too weak or too numb to stand … ought one to take them to a campfire? Once these poor wretches fell asleep they were dead … Sleep comes inevitably, and sleep is to die. I tried in vain to save a number of these unfortunates. The only words they uttered were to beg me, for the love of God, to go away and let them sleep. To hear them, one would have thought sleep was their salvation. Unhappily, it was a poor wretch's last wish. But at least he ceased to suffer, without pain or agony. Gratitude, and even a smile, was imprinted on his discoloured lips. What I have related about the effects of extreme cold, and of this kind of death by freezing, is based on what I saw happen to thousands of individuals. The road was covered with their corpses.’